For the 22nd consecutive season, the Colorado State University women’s volleyball team will be competing in the NCAA championship tournament when they take on the Kentucky Wildcats Friday Dec. 2 in Seattle, Washington at 6 p.m. MT.
The Rams took second this season in the Mountain West conference, the first time they have not won it in eight years. They were selected as an at-large team thanks in part to their ranking in the RPI which was 46th and their tough non-conference schedule in which they faired quite well against six other tournament teams including a win over the Baylor Bears.
The Wildcats are currently ranked 24th in the UVCA coaches poll and are ranked 19th in RPI. But this will not be the highest ranked team the Rams have played this year when earlier they took on the Texas Longhorns, currently ranked fifth in the poll and fourth in RPI.
The Wildcats feature a similar looking team as to what has been seen from the Rams this year. There are only two seniors on Kentucky, but it is a majority of younger players making the difference for them while the Rams are very similar.
The Rams lone senior, Cassidy Denny, can bring not only her talents at libero to the stage, but also her experience. This will be her fourth and final NCAA tournament, and with that experience the other players can learn quite a bit from her.
“A lot of the time we get to the tournament and try to do too much,” Denny said. “The year we made it to the sweet 16 we just went out there and had fun and played hard.”
That run to the sweet 16 was in 2014 and tied the farthest the Rams have ever made it in the tournament, something Denny and the rest of the team would love to repeat. Deny described this tournament as being “bittersweet” since she knows it will be her last but does not want to let that thinking overtake her mindset.
The biggest part of both teams entering this matchup is their youth movement. Both teams feature outstanding young players that have stepped up in the regular season and will now be called upon in the postseason.
Leah Edmond of Kentucky won the SEC Freshman of the Year award thanks in part to her 4.29 kills per set mark as an outside hitter. The Rams respond with their own freshman of the year, as setter Katie Oleksak won the same award for the Mountain West behind her 1,216 assists, which is 36th in the nation.
“It’s really cool, but I don’t want to stop there,” Oleksak said on her award. “I want to keep going up…use that as leverage to keep continuing to do well in the gym.”
Oleksak and the seven other freshman on the team will be experiencing the tournament for the first time.
“I’ve always grown up watching this tournament on TV and to be in it now is kind of soreal,” Oleksak said. “I can’t wait for Friday.”
The strength of the Wildcats that the young Rams will have to overcome is their offense. Kentucky ranks 30th in hitting percentage at .260 and 17th in kills per set at 14.31. The Rams will make it hard for them to continue those numbers as the Rams are second in the nation in blocks per set at 3.34 and third in total blocks with 357.5.
“I think if we can block effectively against their athletes then we just got to play volleyball and I think we will be fine,” said head coach Tom Hilbert.
Mountain West Newcomer of the Year Kirstie Hillyer is the one who has led the way for the CSU defense. She ranks fifth in blocks per set at 1.58 and 12th in total blocks with 160. Junior Alexandra Poletto has been strong at the net as well with 1.30 blocks per set during the regular season.
However, Hillyer, the 6-feet 7-inch freshman, will not be the only tall and strong blocker taking the court as the Wildcats have six foot four junior Kaz Brown. She is a force up front as seen by her 1.42 blocks per set which is the 18th best in the nation. She is also 39th in the nation in total blocks with 141. Brown is also efficient on offense with her .371 hitting percentage which ranks 30th in the nation.
Brown is joined by six other players who are 6-foot-2 or taller which will help them in trying to block the Rams strong attack which ranks ninth in the nation in hitting percentage at .286.
The only team that both the Rams and Wildcats took the court with this season was Wyoming. Kentucky swept them on a neutral court and the Rams split the season series with them 1-1 after winning in Fort Collins in the last match of the regular season. Kentucky and CSU have met only once in their history and it came in 1987 as the Rams won 3-2 at home.
“We got to be into the game, be alert and make plays defensively,” Hilbert said. “If we do that, that helps us a lot because [Kentucky has] struggled with that.”
If the Rams do get the victory, they will play the winner of the match between Washington and Texas A&M Coprus Christi on Saturday evening at 8 p.m. MT.
“If you just go in there and play with no expectations and have no pressure on you, you play the best,” Denny said, “Just staying calm and knowing that we are good volleyball players and we deserve to be here.”
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ajwrules44